Monday, April 07, 2008

Examining Life

Phew, a bruising weekend. But how great is this, for a Monday? Philosophy everywhere:
  • A NYtimes article about the resurgence in philosophy programs in US universities. I started out a philosophy major before mutating into a physicist, and I have never regretted it. To be somewhat glib, the experience with struggling with "big questions," even apparently unanswerable ones (e.g. life and death, soul vs. body, Sein und Zeit, the role of Geist in history, etc.), makes dealing with somewhat-answerable ones (the existence, and definition of the Quark Gluon Plasma) that much more satisfying.

  • Stanley Fish, remembering the rise of "French Theory in America" and the Culture Wars they inspired. I went to college in the 80's and lit theory was a temporary, but fascinating, stage in that aforementioned mutation. There's certainly a tension between the deconstructionist worldview (and its antecedents) and the "naive" (oy) scientific realist view most of us working scientist have to adopt (with some hardship, in my case) to stay sane -- as well as to write plausible accounts of our research. But when you notice that data never speaks for itself (even if we've all heard our colleagues claim that "the data say..." something or another, usually in support of their view of things), and that two different people can make equally consistent stories for data sets (until the decisive experiment arrives!) it's nice to know that you're not alone:
    ...[The] program of drawing closer and closer to a truth independent of our discursive practices, a truth that, if we are slow and patient in the Baconian manner, will reveal itself and come out from behind the representational curtain — is not, according to [the deconstructionist way of] thinking, realizable...That’s a loss, but it’s not a loss of anything in particular. It doesn’t take anything away from us. We can still do all the things we have always done; we can still say that some things are true and others false, and believe it; we can still use words like better and worse and offer justifications for doing so. All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that will have happened is that one account of what we know and how we know it — one epistemology — has been replaced by another, which means only that in the unlikely event you are asked “What’s your epistemology?” you’ll give a different answer than you would have given before. The world, and you, will go on pretty much in the same old way.
  • And a statue of Aristotle has just arrived in Queens.
I always wonder if the life of the mind is under attack by the onslaught of media and the technology which delivers it. You see so many kids (and their parents) so focussed on keeping busy. But I always figure that the mind will eventually reclaim it's own (Word) as the busy generation starts to burn out and reflect a bit. Then again, maybe I'm still just a romantic -- from the Times:
Barry Loewer, the [Rutgers philosophy] department chairman, said that Rutgers started building its philosophy program in the late 1980s, when the field was branching into new research areas like cognitive science and becoming more interdisciplinary. He said that many students have double-majored in philosophy and, say, psychology or economics, in recent years, and go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders.

As the approach has changed, philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy. Some, like Ms. Onejeme, the pre-med-student-turned-philosopher, who is double majoring in political science, see it as a pre-law track because it emphasizes the verbal and logic skills prized by law schools — something the Rutgers department encourages by pointing out that their majors score high on the LSAT.

Other students said that studying philosophy, with its emphasis on the big questions and alternative points of view, provided good training for looking at larger societal questions, like globalization and technology.
OK, philosophy as a means rather than an end. At least it's a start.

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